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Cablegate: Sri Lanka: Draft International Religious

Published: Fri 28 May 2004 04:50 AM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 06 COLOMBO 000894
SIPDIS
SENSITIVE
DEPARTMENT FOR SA, SA/INS, SA/RA, DRL/IRL, DRL/CRA
E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM PREL KIRF KSEP CE
SUBJECT: Sri Lanka: Draft International Religious
Freedom Report for 2004
Refs: (A) Colombo-DRL 05-28-04 unclass email
- (B) State 82752
1. (U) This is Senstive But Unclassified -- Please
handle accordingly.
2. (U) Per Ref B, Mission submits below the draft
Sri Lanka International Religious Freedom report for
2004. A Word document with tracked changes in the final
2003 version of the Sri Lanka report has been sent to the
Department via email (per Ref B instructions).
3. (SBU) Draft Sri Lanka International Religious Freedom
Report for 2004:
Begin Text:
The Constitution accords Buddhism the "foremost place,"
but it is not recognized as the state religion. The
Constitution also provides for the right of members of
other faiths to practice their religion freely, and the
Government generally respects this right in practice.
Respect for religious freedom by the Government was
generally unchanged during the period covered by this
report. Due to the actions of extremists, however, there
was a severe deterioration in religious freedom during
the period covered by this report. In late 2003 and
early 2004, Sri Lanka witnessed a serious spate of
attacks on Christian churches, and sometimes pastors and
congregants. Over one hundred attacks have been alleged,
with several dozen confirmed by the Embassy. In
response, major political and religious leaders publicly
condemned the attacks and police arrested close to a
dozen people in connection with the incidents. The
government did not take action on a draft bill
criminalizing the conversion of Hindus by "unethical"
means.
Embassy officials expressed USG concerns about the
incidents of church attacks in meetings with Government
leaders. Embassy officials also urged the Government to
arrest and prosecute the perpetrators of the attacks.
The U.S. Government continues to discuss general
religious freedom issues with the Government in the
context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting
human rights.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has a total area of 25,322 square miles and
a population of approximately 18.5 million. Buddhism,
Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity all are practiced in
the country. Approximately 70 percent of the population
are Buddhist, 15 percent are Hindu, 8 percent are
Christian, and 7 percent are Muslim. Christians tend to
be concentrated in the west, with much of the north
almost exclusively Hindu. The other parts of the country
have a mixture of religions, with Buddhism
overwhelmingly present in the south.
Most members of the majority Sinhalese community are
Theravada Buddhists. Almost all Muslims are Sunnis, with
a small minority of Shi'a, including members of the
Borah community. Roman Catholics account for almost 90
percent of the Christians, with Anglicans and other
mainstream Protestant churches also present in the
cities. The Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses,
and the Assemblies of God are present as well.
Evangelical Christian groups have increased in
membership in recent years, although the overall number
of members in these groups still is small/
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
Legal/Policy Framework
The Constitution gives Buddhism a "foremost position,"
but it also provides for the right of members of other
faiths to practice their religions freely, and the
Government generally respects this right in practice.
There are separate ministries in the Government that
address religious affairs. These include: The Ministry
of Buddha Sasana, the Ministry of Muslim Religious
Affairs, the Ministry of Hindu Affairs, and the Ministry
of Christian Affairs. Each of these ministries has been
empowered to deal with issues involving the religion in
question.
In January 2003, a bill intended to curb religious
conversions of Hindus was drafted and presented to the
Cabinet. The draft bill was still under review by the
Attorney General's office in February when President
Kumaratunga dissolved Parliament and announced that
parliamentary elections would take place in April. With
the dissolution of Parliament, all pending legislation
was cancelled, including the draft "anti-conversion"
bill. As of the end of this reporting period, the draft
"anti-conversion" bill had not been re-introduced in the
new Parliament. There continues to be some discussion
that the draft bill might be re-introduced as a private
member's motion (not by the government) and then voted
on later this year.
Some Christian denominations have resisted greater
government involvement in their affairs; instead they
are registered individually through acts of Parliament
or as corporations under domestic law. Christian
denominations must fill out and submit forms in order to
be recognized as corporations. This gives them legal
standing in Sri Lanka to be treated as corporate
entities in their financial and real estate
transactions. In July, the Sri Lanka Supreme Court ruled
against an incorporation petition by the Teaching
Sisters of the Holy Cross of the Third Order of Saint
Francis. The court denied the petition, claiming that
the order could not be incorporated if it was involved
in proselytization and providing material benefit. At
present, the religious order is preparing an appeal to
the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights. There is no
tax exemption for religious organizations as such.
However, churches and temples are allowed to register as
charitable organizations and therefore are entitled to
some tax exemptions.
The Government has placed renewed emphasis on the work
of national councils for interfaith understanding in the
wake of the attacks on Christian churches and
evangelical groups' property (see Section III).
Despite the constitutional preference for Buddhism, a
number of major religious festivals of other faiths are
celebrated as national holidays.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
Foreign clergy may work in the country, but for the last
three decades, the Government has taken steps to limit
the number of foreign Christian religious workers given
temporary work permits. Permission usually is restricted
to denominations that are registered formally with the
Government. Most religious workers in the country,
including most Christian clergy, are Sri Lankan in
origin.
During the period covered by this report, Christians,
both mainstream denominations and evangelical groups,
suffered from an increase in harassment and physical
attacks by local Buddhist extremists who felt threatened
by these groups (see Section III). Some Christian groups
sometimes complain that the Government tacitly condones
such harassment and violence, but there is little
evidence to support this claim, although some local
police officials were reportedly reluctant to take legal
action against Buddhist monks involved in the attacks.
Religion is a mandatory subject in the school
curriculum. Parents and children may choose whether a
child studies Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, or
Christianity. Students of minority religions other than
Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity must pursue religious
instruction outside of the public school system. There
are no separate syllabi provided for smaller religions.
Religion is taught in schools from an academic point of
view.
Issues related to family law, including divorce, child
custody, and inheritance are adjudicated by the
customary law of each ethnic or religious group. The
minimum age of marriage for women is 18 years, except in
the case of Muslims, who continue to follow their
customary religious practices. The application of
different legal practices based on membership in a
religious or ethnic group may result in discrimination
against women.
Abuses of Religious Freedom
Since 1983 the Government (controlled by the Sinhalese,
and predominantly Buddhist, majority) has fought the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an insurgent
organization fighting for a separate state for the
country's Tamil (and predominantly Hindu) minority.
However, in December 2001, the Government and the LTTE
each announced unilateral cease fires and in February
2002 a joint ceasefire accord was agreed to by the
parties. The peace process is fragile; in April 2003,
the LTTE pulled out of talks with the Government.
Religion did not play a significant role in the
conflict, which essentially is rooted in linguistic,
ethnic, and political differences. Buddhists, Hindus,
and Christians all have been affected by the conflict,
which has claimed more than 60,000 lives. The military
had issued warnings through public radio before
commencing major operations, instructing civilians to
congregate at safe zones around churches and temples;
however, in the conflict areas in the north, the
Government occasionally was accused of bombing and
shelling Hindu temples and Christian churches. In 2003,
some Buddhist clergy were allowed to visit shrines in
LTTE-controlled areas for the first time in many years.
In the past 12 months, some Christians also visited holy
sites in LTTE-controlled areas which had not been
accessible during the period of armed conflict.
The LTTE targeted Buddhist sites, most notably the
historic Dalada Maligawa or "Temple of the Tooth," the
holiest Buddhist shrine in the country, in the town of
Kandy in January 1998. Thirteen worshipers, including
several children, were killed by the bombing. The
Government still is attempting to locate and arrest the
LTTE perpetrators of the attack. As a result, the
Government has augmented security at a number of
religious sites island-wide, including the Temple of the
Tooth. In contrast to previous years, the LTTE did not
target Buddhist sites during the period covered by this
report; however, the LTTE has not indicated that it will
abstain from attacking such targets in the future.
There were no reports of religious prisoners or
detainees.
There were no reported public acts of anti-Semitism.
Forced Religious Conversion
There were no reports of forced religious conversion,
including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted
or illegally removed from the United States, or of the
Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be
returned to the United States.
Persecution by Terrorist Organizations
The LTTE has been listed as a Foreign Terrorist
Organization since 1997. Muslims, Tamils, and Sinhalese
have all been victimized by the LTTE, but religious
persecution has not played a major role in the conflict.
In 1990, the LTTE expelled some 46,000 Muslim
inhabitants-virtually the entire Muslim population-from
their homes in the northern part of the island. Most of
these persons remain displaced and live in or near
welfare centers. Although some Muslims returned to the
northern town of Jaffna in 1997, they did not remain
there due to the continuing threat posed by the LTTE.
There are credible reports that the LTTE has warned
thousands of Muslims displaced from the Mannar area not
to return to their homes until the conflict is over. It
appears that the LTTE's actions against Muslims are not
targeted against them due to their religious beliefs,
but that they are rather a part of an overall strategy
to clear the north and east of persons not sympathetic
to the LTTE. The LTTE has made some conciliatory
statements to the Muslim community, but the statements
were viewed with skepticism by some Muslims. The LTTE
continues to encourage Muslim IDPs to return home,
asserting they will not be harmed. Although some Muslim
IDPs have returned home, the vast majority have not and
were instead waiting for a guarantee from the Government
for their safety in LTTE-controlled areas. Since the
peace process began in December 2001, the LTTE has also
perpetrated a number of attacks in the east in which
Muslims have been killed. No one has been arrested for
perpetrating these attacks. The LTTE also commonly
extorts money from Muslim families and businesses in the
east.
The LTTE has been accused in the past of using church
and temple compounds, where civilians are instructed by
the Government to congregate in the event of
hostilities, as shields for the storage of munitions.
Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for
Religious Freedom
At the height of the attacks on Christian churches,
Government leaders from the President to the then-
Minister of Christian Affairs spoke out in public
denouncing the attacks. President Kumaratunga
specifically said that such attacks would not be
tolerated and ordered the police to fully investigate
each incident. Since the government crackdown began in
late 2003, police have arrested almost a dozen people
connected with the various attacks. Former Prime
Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also convened regular
meetings of the four ministers dealing with religious
issues as part of their portfolio and established
religious "amity" committees around the island. Leading
Catholic and Buddhist clergy met in May to continue the
dialogue on religious tolerance.
Section III. Societal Attitudes
Discrimination based on religious differences is much
less common than discrimination based on ethnicity. In
general, the members of the various faiths tend to be
tolerant of each other's religious beliefs. However, Sri
Lanka witnessed a severe increase in the harassment of
Christians, especially evangelical groups, and attacks
on their property and places of worship during the
period covered by this report. The attacks were
perpetrated by extremist Buddhists, who were opposed to
attempts to convert Buddhists to another religion.
Government officials and leaders of the different faiths
all publicly condemned this spate of attacks.
The police made attempts to investigate these incidents
when complaints were made, but were often reluctant to
pursue suspected perpetrators who were Buddhist monks.
Law enforcement officials continue to believe that a
majority of the attacks were conducted by a small number
of extremist Buddhists. By early 2004, several alleged
attackers had been arrested, and the intensity and
frequency of the attacks had declined.
The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka
reports that over one hundred attacks have taken place
during the period covered by this report. Embassy has
confirmed dozens of these attacks. Representative
instances of such attacks are reviewed below:
On April 11, the Christian Fellowship Church in Wadduwa
was attacked by a mob led by a Buddhist monk. Attackers
threw rocks at the church and tried to beat worshippers
with sticks. Police are investigating the incident. Also
on April 11, the residence of the pastor of the Assembly
of God church in Ampara District was firebombed. No
injuries were reported in the attack and the police are
investigating.
On February 24, an Apostolic church in the Boraluwewa
District was attacked and the roof of the church was
burnt. Seven men who were later arrested are free on
bail. A court date is scheduled for July 2004.
On February 7, the Kebithigollwa office of the Christian
NGO, World Vision, was fire bombed and completely burnt.
The following day, the police arrested several people,
including Buddhist monks, in connection with the
incident. The investigation is continuing at present.
On January 26, the Our Mother Most Pure Catholic shrine
in Mattegoda was damaged in an arson attack. A police
investigation is ongoing.
On December 9, three separate religious-based attacks
occurred in Ratnapura. The local office of the Christian
NGO, World Vision, was attacked and a security guard on
the premise was injured. The interior of St.
Sebastian's Catholic Church and the evangelical Calvary
Church also were damaged in the second and third
attacks. Police do not have any suspects, but both cases
remain under investigation.
On December 5, two Korean protestant ministers were
harassed at their residence in Colombo. Several personal
items were stolen. Police are investigating the
incident.
On November 13, the staff at the Borella office of World
Vision was threatened and harassed by Buddhist monks
accusing the group of organizing "unethical
conversions." No one was injured. A Buddhist monk and
several others were arrested in connection with the
incident and a police investigation is ongoing.
On September 25, there was an attack on the Assembly of
God church in Kesbawa. The attack was allegedly led by
an extremist Buddhist monk named Ven. Katuwella
Chandrasiri. The church was seriously damaged but no one
was injured. A police investigation is ongoing.
On September 17, four women connected with the Assembly
of God church in Kotadeniyawa were assaulted. The
church was subsequently burnt on September 23. The
police are investigating the incidents, but there have
not been any arrests in the case.
On August 2, a member of the Assembly of God church in
Thanamalwila was attacked and chased by Buddhist monks.
A complaint was filed with the police.
On May 17, 2003, a group of laypersons associated with a
local Buddhist temple visited Pastor Rozario at his home
in the village of Neluwa, in the Galle District, and
instructed him not to convert persons of other faiths to
Christianity. Following the incident, Rozario made a
complaint to police. On June 17, other persons attacked
Pastor Rozario and set fire to items in his home. Three
people have been charged with criminal trespass and
intimidation. A court hearing is scheduled for October
2004.
On May 25, 2003, 500 Hindus broke into the Heavenly
Harvest Church in Kaluvenkerni, beat church members,
including children, and ransacked the building. The
Hindu mob then set fire to the homes of all 25 Christian
families in the village and tried to force two
Christians to renounce their faith. The police who
arrived on the scene were outnumbered but managed to
drive the pastor to safety. The LTTE have asked
Christian villagers to return and promised to look after
their safety. As of the end of the period covered by
this report, no arrests had been made.
On June 3, a mob of 100 Buddhists surrounded St.
Stephen's Lutheran Church at midnight and destroyed a
small church hall still under construction. A Christian
family next door was threatened with death if they
reported the incident. Local authorities made one arrest
after the attack but took no other action. Villagers
subsequently threatened to bomb the church if the
Christians attempted to rebuild it.
In September 2002, a group of Christians vandalized a
Jehovah's Witness hall in Negombo, breaking windows,
destroying electrical systems, and burning equipment.
Members of the congregation claimed that the police did
not react to the disturbance until after the crowd
dispersed. In November 2002, a Christian mob stormed the
same meeting hall, assaulting Jehovah's Witnesses and
again vandalizing the premises. In December 2002, an
appeal was made for police action and cooperation. A
police spokesman visited the site and submitted a report
to the Inspector General of Police. The police
investigation determined the fire was deliberately set.
There are no suspects and no case has been filed.
There are reports that members of various religious
groups give preference in hiring in the private sector
to members of their own group or denomination. This
practice does not appear to be based principally on
religion. There is no indication of preference in
employment in the public sector on the basis of
religion.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with
the Government in the context of its overall dialog and
policy of promoting human rights. Representatives of the
Embassy regularly meet with representatives of all of
the country's religious groups to review a wide range of
human rights, ethnic, and religious freedom issues.
During the period covered by this report, Embassy
representatives met with Sri Lanka government officials
at the highest level to express USG concern about the
attacks on Christian churches.
The U.S. is a strong supporter of the peace process
launched by the Sri Lankan Government and the Embassy
encourages the inter-faith efforts by religious leaders
to promote a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Prisoner Lists and Issue Briefs
There were no reports of religious detainees or
prisoners.
End Text.
4. (U) Minimize considered.
LUNSTEAD
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